Island Critters:
Sea Turtles

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One of the most fascinating critters to join our little community is the Loggerhead Sea Turtle. For thousands of years, from mid-May through mid- September, female loggerhead sea turtles have crawled ashore on Wassaw Island and other coastal barrier islands to dig their nests and lay their eggs. A female turtle will dig a nest in the sand with her back flipper - about 8 inches across and 18 inches deep. The she will lay about 120 eggs, each about the size of a ping pong ball, which she carefully covers with sand. She then returns the ocean, only to repeat this about twice more during the season. But, she never returns to attend to the hatchlings.

After about 2 months, the baby turtles hatch, usually in the evening when there are fewer predators around, and travel in mass to the ocean. They swim for up to 48 hours, using up the energy from the egg sac, before they need to feed. Once back in the ocean, they will travel a four year cycle with the gulf stream currents taking them north, toward Nova Scotia, across the Atlantic toward England, then south to the Equator and back through the Caribbean toward the US.

It is estimated that loggerhead turtles reach maturity between 20 and 30 years of age and have a maximum reproductive lifespan of 30 years. An estimated 14,000 female Loggerheads nest in the southeast US annually and the adult turtle weighs between 200 and 350 pounds. A female will usually lay several nests during one season and may nest every two to three years.

Locally, the Caretta Project -- a joint effort between the Savannah Science Museum, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wassaw Island Trust -- has been observing and helping these graceful creatures of the sea for 27 years. The Caretta project uses volunteers to monitor threatened loggerhead sea turtles on Wassaw Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is located south of Little Tybee, at the mouth of the Bull River. It is one of the oldest sea turtle monitoring projects in the country and one of the few that lets anyone work hands-on with a threatened species. They observe and tag the females, and guard the hatchlings from their natural predators (raccoons and ghost crabs) as well as human interference.

[Wassaw Island became a refuge in 1969. It has 20 miles of trails for hiking and biking and a 7-mile-long beach. It is open from sunup to sundown every day; there is no overnight camping on Wassaw. Wassaw is accessible only by boat.]

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